In UConn’s first Big East postseason appearance since the team left the conference in 2013, the Huskies (22-1, 18-0 Big East) picked up right where they left off eight years ago, beating St John’s 71-44 on Saturday, followed by a dominant 84-39 win over Villanova on Sunday in the semifinals.
“It’s good to be back in the Big East,” head coach Geno Auriemma said after Saturday’s win. “There’s something special about it. It’s a shame the fans can’t be part of it. Being back here feels like it’s a normal place to be, even though it’s not normal circumstances.”
Defense was the name of the game in UConn’s quarterfinal win over the Red Storm, as the Huskies held St. John’s to just 28% shooting for the game and forced more St. John’s turnovers (21) then made shots (15).
“Our team defense was incredible,” Paige Bueckers said after the win. “In March, the key thing for everyone’s game is their defense … If we set the tone on defense it makes offense a lot easier.”
The defensive effort was spearheaded by freshman Nika Muhl, who racked up five points, four rebounds and four steals in her 21 minutes of play. Muhl missed most of the second half with an ankle injury she sustained in the third quarter, but the game was already in hand at that point.
Her status for the semi-final was questionable, but the team knew if anyone could make a quick turnaround it would be Muhl.
“She means so much to the team on and off the court,” Nelson-Ododa said. “It’s hard seeing her go out like that but she’s tough and we know she’s going to be able to come back pretty easy from that.”
Along with Muhl, who came back as predicted and played 18 minutes in the semifinal, Nelson-Ododa had a very impressive first half of play against the Red Storm. In just 25 minutes, the junior racked up 10 points on 5/9 shooting to go along with 11 boards — her seventh double-double of the year — a steal and a block.
Nelson-Ododa’s play was a major contributor to UConn’s control of the paint on both ends. The Huskies ended the game with a 43-30 advantage on the glass, including a 14-7 advantage on offensive boards, and outscored St. John’s 46-10 in the paint. When shots aren’t falling from the outside — UConn shot just 2-16 from deep, their worst percentage of the year — it will be crucial for them to be able to bully their way into the paint to find some points.
Offensively, the Huskies were led by Bueckers, who scored a game-high 17 and dished out three assists. After going just 2/9 from the field in the first half, Bueckers quickly reminded folks why she is in the top-15 candidates for National Player of the Year, as the freshman nearly outscored the Red Storm on her own in the third quarter, putting up 11 points on 5/6 shooting.
Christyn Williams (14), Evina Westbrook (9), Aaliyah Edwards (9) and Aubrey Griffin (6) all played a big role in the win as well, as depth continues to be an important part of this team, especially with a few players experiencing nagging injuries.
“We have conditional depth,” Auriemma said. “We have players that are capable of helping us. Today was a good day to get their feet wet and hopefully they’ll add to that.”
While it’s nice to have that depth as an option if the starters struggle out of the gate, that was not the case at all in UConn’s 84-39 win over the Villanova Wildcats. The Huskies starting five got off to a flaming hot start on both ends and didn’t look back, combining to score 68 of the team’s 84 points in the massive win. Head coach Geno Auriemma loved what he saw from the team and said it’s all coming together at the exact right time.
“It’s a great feeling when you watch a team play late in a season and all the things you’ve been trying to work on come to life,” Auriemma said. “It makes them feel like all the work and effort they put into it is worth it.”
All season long the idea of defense leading to offense has been preached by this team, and that has never been more apparent than in their win over the Wildcats.
It took Villanova nearly four minutes to get their first bucket of the game, but by that point UConn had already gotten into a rhythm offensively, getting out to a 7-0 start and ending the quarter up 25-10.
Christyn Williams scored 11 of her game-high 26 in the first and looked as confident as a scorer as she has this year. Auriemma said this game was huge for the junior, and her continued success will only help the Huskies toward the end goal of a national championship.
“I think today was the culmination of being great defensively and letting the natural part of who she is happen on the offensive end,” Auriemma said. “We’re a championship team if Christyn Williams plays like that.”
For as good as Williams and the team were in the first, though, their second quarter was perhaps the best basketball they’ve played all season. The Huskies scored their usual 20 points, but held Villanova to just one bucket, a 3-pointer, that came with 1:14 left in the half.
Coming off a game where the Wildcats dropped 78 in an overtime win against DePaul, UConn held Villanova to just 13 first half points, forcing more turnovers (6) than made baskets (5). The rotation, communication and intensity from top to bottom was exemplary of a championship team and have Bueckers feeling prepared for the tougher games ahead.
“I feel like we’re playing our best basketball right now,” Bueckers said.
UConn laid off the gas a bit in the second half in preparation for tomorrow’s final, but still outscored the Wildcats 39-26 with contributions across the board. Bueckers, who had struggled with her shot in recent games, put up 18 points on 6/10 shooting to go with eight assists, and Nelson-Ododa added 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists in 23 minutes.
Next up for the Huskies is the Big East Tournament Championship game, where they’ll face the Marquette Golden Eagles in a rematch of their meeting earlier this month. That game ended in just a 10-point win for UConn, but when they are playing like they have in the first two games of the tournament, it feels like nothing can stop them.